Deconstructing Art with Data Science

Thoughts on The Bestseller Code

I’m fascinated by creativity, so much so that it’s the topic of my first novel. It is one of the things that makes us human. The most unexplainable thing. Have you ever stopped to think of the utilitarian purpose of music? And if you answer better memory, better focus, calmed nerves, or increased energy…can you explain how it does those things?

Last night I downloaded the book The Bestseller Code when it was mentioned in class (thanks Suzanne). The authors break down the common elements of NYT bestseller adult novels. OK, before the writing purists start beating me with their muse sticks, sit back and let me tell you a tale. And for those who think it could be the latest magic formula, it’s really not. After all, what is magic other than a word to describe that which we cannot explain…yet. The authors simply break down repeated patterns.

This is a story of connection, and I believe that everything connects on a spectrum from infinitesimally tiny to directly. It is also a look at artificial intelligence and machine learning.

I am by no means an expert in artificial intelligence. Call me a voyeur. So the idea that someone took styleometrics and heuristics to decode what makes lots of people read particular books, is interesting. The fact that I would like to write a book that becomes a best seller makes it relevant. The fact that I used those two tools to uncover truth in my personal life makes the subject endearing.

It wasn’t my idea to track down my anonymous troll a couple of years ago using the newer digital research tools, but I wanted to prove to myself that I was looking in the right direction. That pointed me, along with a subpoena for my deposition, to understand that the entire thing was about money. How droll, troll. After all that time, energy, teeth gnashing, and personal expense. But such is life sometimes.

Fast forward to today and I’m what I like to call reluctantly grateful for my past nemesis. Paolo Coelho wrote in one of his books that “if everybody loves you, something is wrong. Find at least one enemy to keep you alert.” I’ve outgrown that enemy, but only because that presence alerted me to how far I veered off my path. I was scared to hand off what I built to someone new. Tried three times and failed to find my replacement. Then my troll dropped him right in my lap. Now it’s my successor’s turn to define the future of the organization and where he wants to lead it. I cheer for him and all of the entrepreneurs we funded over the years from the sideline now, pen in hand.

Sometimes it isn’t angels put on our path to show us the way.

Coelho by the way is one of the biggest best sellers of our time. He dabbled in magic a bit over the years. Now he writes the truths he discovered and continues to discover. I devour his books the moment they’re released. Why? Well, it’s in the code.

The first reveal by the authors about the DNA of a bestseller is KISS. Brainbuster that one. Keep it simple. A whopping one-third of the content of most best sellers are about one topic, two at most. Non best sellers average four topics.

Human closeness and human connection is the overwhelming major winner on the glue that binds the topics, but it is not the popular majority topic. Those typically fall into the areas of work, home life, love, or modern technology.

Current best sellers are generally in the realist category. Humans doing basic human things with other humans in generic dwellings. Sheesh! No wonder we haven’t been to the moon in a while. Books have the power to inspire action. But wait…there’s always an exception we humans can explain away. Andy Weir puts his protagonists on Mars and the Moon. It’s explained by saying the characters in The Martian work in human built labs and they want to get back to Earth. In typical human fashion, I only introduce doubt where it doesn’t fit my world view. Bring on the scifi and fantasy I say. Computer data be damned.

The other exception is Harry Potter and all of the other breakout successes in the Young Adult category. What does it say about us and the Scifi/Fantasy genre that 55% of Harry Potter readers are adults? My hope is restored!

Since we’re on the subject of outliers, how about the one that sent shockwaves through literary shelves. The book that sold 125 million copies in four years despite the vehement hatred of critics. Oh yes, get your leather straps and buckle in because we’re going to get into all the shades of grey of that blackest of swans.

They ultimately boil down the outlier success of Shades of Grey to two words – guilty pleasure. That was easy.

But why?

Strong emotional response. So then, what do humans strongly respond to in a novel?

  1. Character agency
  2. Plot curve
  3. Central theme related to human closeness

Sounds simple, but how is it accomplished? The Bestseller Code breaks down the usage of verbs like want and need (occurring twice as often in best sellers vs non best sellers). It gets in to titles and first sentences. But at this point you should read the book yourself if you want to know more.

The final twenty percent of the book is dedicated to the data science behind the four-year project that led to the findings in the book. Because so much of the technology in my scifi stories depends on big data, it was interesting to understand how they went about the problem of breaking down the bestseller DNA.


It inspires me to tackle some of the problems I raise in my writing. I love books that inspire, no matter how they may appear on the surface. Could this be the Fifty Shades of novel writing?